Preserving Our Past, Capitalizing on the Present, Embracing the Future

Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps, Beginnings to 1940

The first nurses and first women in the military were appointed to the Army Nurse Corps on 2 February 1901; however, the Continental Army first requested nurses to take care of wounded and sick soldiers in 1776. Women were chosen from among the mothers, wives and sisters of the troops. They were sent to makeshift tent hospitals, and requisitioned private homes. Besides tending the sick, they scrubbed floors, laundered linen, prepared meals, and managed medical and food supplies.

After revolutionary times until the Civil War, military leaders had little need for nurses. At that war’s onset, however, the expanded scope of the fighting Civil War nurseand large number of casualties caused medical units to ask for nursing assistance. More than 3,000 female and approximately 500 male volunteers worked around the clock, dressing wounds, feeding and bathing patients, and comforting the dying. Oftentimes, they rarely rested until they themselves became ill.

In 1898, meSpanish-American War ward with nurses dical care, again, proved inadequate for the service members struck down by yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases during the Spanish American War. Fifteen hundred contract nurses were recruited and they helped to turn the tide with the epidemics. The nursing professionals’ contributions became the justification for a permanent female nurse corps.

Until 1911, Army nurses served at three places: Fort Bayard, New Mexico; San Francisco; and the Philippines. In that year their assignment list expanded to include Hot Springs, Arkansas; San Antonio, Texas; and Washington, DC. Until 1916 their numbers never exceeded 220. The Mexican border uprising necessitated additional active duty and reserve nurses, who were enrolled by the Red Cross. Membership increased to 450.

WWI African-American nursesThe following year, when the United States entered World War I, there were only 403 Army nurses on active duty. By November 1918, the number rose to 21,460 officers, with 10,000 serving overseas. African-American nurses were also admitted to the Corps for the first time. However, segregation policies delayed their actual accession until after the armistice was signed. By demobilization, it is estimated that one-third of all American nurses had served in the Army.

These health professionals served primarily in base, evacuation, and mobile surgical hospitals. Their flexibility and “can do” attitude shown brightly in assignments on hospital trains in France and transport ships carrying wounded home across the submarine-infested Atlantic. Moreover, they worked diligently in specialty hospitals and specialty teams attached to general hospitals in the United States, France, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Miss Harriet I. Arrington, ANCIn 1920 Army nurses were authorized relative rank in the grades of Second Lieutenant to Major. This law entitled them to wear the insignia of their rank; however, the Surgeon General ordered that these healthcare professionals would continue to be addressed as “Miss.” Their pay was approximately half that of a male officer of the same rank. With the endorsement of the line generals, who had witnessed or benefited from nursing care, and along with the increased political influence of organized nursing, changes in status and retirement were legislated. Nurses also lobbied openly for full military status.

During the 1930s, they explored detached duties, that is, receiving full pay and allowance while attending advanced educational courses. They were encouraged to apply for anesthesia, psychiatric and other nursing postgraduate short courses at various universities throughout the country.

 Left from top:
  Civil war nurse and patients
  Miss Harriet I. Arrington, ANC
 Right from top:
  Staff of Base Hospital 60 in New York City in 1918 before leaving for Europe
  Spanish-American War Army Hospital Ward
  First African-American Army Nurses
Text by ANCA Historian COL (Ret.) C. J. Moore; Photos courtesy of the Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage